Not all calf milk replacers are created equal

You want what’s best for your bottle calves, and a key to that is selecting a calf milk replacer to meet their needs. Quality nutrition helps bottle calves feel happy and healthy and puts them on a path for a productive life.

Not all calf milk replacers are the same. Ingredient quality and nutritional value can vary widely between products. Understanding the differences will help you make the right choice for your bottle calves rather than choosing solely on price and availability.

“Take time to understand differences between milk replacers for calves so you can make an informed purchase,” advises Julian (Skip) Olson, DVM, technical services manager for Milk Products. “Give your bottle calves a strong start by choosing a quality calf milk replacer like Sav-A-Caf® with a blend of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. Your bottle calves will grow and feel their best when fed a calf milk replacer that meets their needs.”

Here are five key considerations to keep in mind when picking a calf milk replacer:

1. Protein and fat levels

What to look for in a calf milk replacer
Crude protein and crude fat are the primary ingredients in a calf milk replacer and represent the product’s formulation. For example, a 20:20 milk replacer contains 20 percent crude protein and 20 percent crude fat.

Crude fat is a concentrated energy source offering 2.25 times the energy of carbohydrates while also providing essential fatty acids. Crude protein delivers essential amino acids bottle calves require.

“Calves need plenty of protein and energy to grow,” notes Olson. “And in cold weather, their energy requirements increase. That is why it’s critical to feed a calf milk replacer comprised of an appropriate amount of protein and fat along with the required total solids to meet their needs in cold weather.”

A good guideline to follow is to choose a milk replacer for calves that contain a minimum of 20 percent protein and 20 percent fat.

2. Protein and fat sources

“Look for a calf milk replacer with highly digestible fat sources. Great fat sources include whole milk fat, lard, tallow and limited amounts of soy, palm or coconut oil,” says Olson. “Protein sources may include all-milk proteins or alternative proteins.”

Here’s a list of proteins proven acceptable for use in calf milk replacers.[1]

All-milk proteins:

  • Dried whey protein concentrate
  • Dried whey
  • Dried whey product
  • Skim milk
  • Casein
  • Sodium or calcium caseinate

Alternative proteins:

  • Soy protein isolate
  • Protein-modified soy flour
  • Soy protein concentrate
  • Animal plasma
  • Wheat gluten or isolate

“You’ll want to avoid protein sources from meat solubles, fish protein concentrate and wheat flour, all of which can be harmful to calves,” says Olson. “Soy flour can be a useful source of protein when blended with milk proteins as a way to reduce milk replacer cost.”

However, Olson advises to use caution when feeding a milk replacer with soy flour.

“Younger calves do not tolerate soy flour. Wait until calves’ digestive system is more mature – around three weeks of age – before feeding a milk replacer with soy flour,” he says.

3. Vitamin and mineral content

“Just like children, bottle calves need vitamins and minerals to grow properly and feel their best,” says Olson.

Vitamins A, D and E, as well as B-complex vitamins are essential to good health, growth and immune function.

“Calcium and phosphorus play big roles in bone development,” says Olson. “Milk replacer for calves should contain between 0.75 and 1.25 percent calcium and at least 0.7 percent phosphorus.”

4. Appearance, smell and consistency

How the product looks, smells and mixes is also important. Dry milk replacer powder should be cream to light tan in color and free of lumps and foreign material.

“Powder that has ‘browned’ significantly suffers from reduced nutrient quality and flavor,” says Olson. “It is normal to see a very small amount of tiny brown specks from the milk powder drying process.”

“It should be bland to pleasant in aroma. If powder resembles the smell of paint, grass, clay or gasoline, the fat ingredients may be rancid.”

5. Easy to use

Choose a calf milk replacer with clear, easy-to-understand mixing instructions and step by step feeding directions.

“Feeding your bottle-fed calves should be a fun chore,” Olson says. “Clear, thorough instructions will help you feel confident you’re meeting your calves’ needs as they grow.”

Calf milk replacer is critical to provide bottle-fed calves the nutrients they need for a healthy, productive life. Choosing a milk replacer for calves with the right nutrients, quality ingredients that mix into water easily and clear feeding instructions will help you choose the best milk replacer for your family’s bottle-fed calves.

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[1] Bovine Alliance on Management & Nutrition. A Guide to Calf Milk Replacers: Types, Use and Quality. 2008. [accessed 2018 Aug 28].